Doctor Uses Clue To Help Authorities Pinpoint Cause Of Overdose Wave

By Paul Fuhr 10/13/17

A patient mentioned taking a yellow pill to the ER doctor and that was all the info he needed to help authorities connect the dots.

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Black male doctor using hand to browse through digital tablet pc touch screen

A "new" type of fentanyl, the synthetic opioid that’s 50 times more powerful than heroin, reportedly triggered a sudden rash of overdoses in Macon, Georgia over the summer. One doctor in the middle of it all used a few clues to figure out that the overdoses were caused by little yellow pills that contained the deadly synthetic opioid.

According to NBC News, it was the detective work of the emergency room doctor that helped uncover the truth behind the baffling overdose cases. Over the span of “14 desperate days,” more than 40 overdose cases rattled the city—six of which ended in death.

All over Macon, the story was the same: a barely conscious patient would arrive, clearly having overdosed on something. And yet, when doctors would administer the anti-overdose drug Narcan, nothing happened.

Meanwhile, the overdose cases were piling up in emergency rooms throughout the city. The only key to the mystery? “Somewhere along the way, [the patient] mentioned a yellow pill,” said ER doctor Gregory Whatley. As he would discover, this was the clue that helped health officials and authorities finally connect the dots.

“A 21-year-old overdose patient was brought in, and he told the paramedics he had taken a Percocet," Dr. Whatley told NBC News. "When I heard that, I said to myself, 'Something is wrong.'” He was right: all of the overdose victims had unwittingly purchased $7 yellow pills of fentanyl, not Percocet, from the same Macon street dealer. Percocet, a combination of oxycodone and acetaminophen, is nowhere near as powerful as the synthetic opioid.

One overdose after another followed, while doctors, nurses, law enforcement, and city officials scrambled to deal with the outbreak. In fact, one nurse reported that her caseload had tripled in just two hours. As the reality of the situation began to dawn on Whatley, he alerted the Georgia Poison Center about the outbreak. (The story noted that drug overdoses are so common in Macon that “medical staffers rarely report them.”)

“We knew we had to get some unified message out about what's going on,” the Poison Center’s director, Gaylord Lopez, said. Shortly thereafter, Lopez’s office “alerted the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, the state attorney general's office, the federal Drug Enforcement Administration and a host of other agencies, including a heroin response team from Atlanta.”

When the Poison Center ran toxicology tests, they discovered that the drugs were a type of fentanyl that Georgia drug officials had never encountered before.

News stories and public service announcements about the counterfeit pills were released, followed by a press conference hosted by Macon doctors and the county sheriff. Still, one overdose after another continued to roll in as local police and investigative units struggled to zero in on who the pills’ seller was. “We were able to find out where the individual pills were purchased,” a Macon police lieutenant said, adding that the fake Percocet had come from Atlanta.

That said, the actual seller himself remains unknown.

From Dr. Whatley’s quick action to the press conference, the city rapidly came together to get the message out. “We won’t ever be able to calculate how many lives were saved,” one official said of Macon’s swift response, though it’s undoubtedly a high number. Regardless, the city’s actions will not prevent similar situations from popping up across the country.

“When dangerous illicit drugs reach this wide level of market penetration, the regional effects of potentially fatal substitutes can be swift,” a criminal justice professor warned.

When it comes to fake drugs and overdoses, city officials, law enforcement officers and first responders certainly need to work together—but as this incident makes clear, they'll also need to learn to expect the unexpected. 

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Paul Fuhr lives in Columbus, Ohio with his family and two cats, Vesper and Dr. No. He's written for AfterParty MagazineThe Literary Review and The Live Oak Review, among others. He's also the host of "Drop the Needle," a podcast about music and addiction recovery. More at paulfuhr.com. You can also find Paul on Linkedin and Twitter.

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